documenta 14: Learning from Athens in Kassel, Germany

Art Radar has a look at documenta 14 in Kassel.

The second chapter of documenta 14: Learning from Athens has opened in its usual location in Kassel, Germany and will run until 17 September 2017, while the Athens exhibition is on through 16 July.

Marta Minujín, 'The Parthenon of Books', 2017,
 steel, books, and plastic sheeting
, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Roman März.

Marta Minujín, ‘The Parthenon of Books’, 2017,
 steel, books, and plastic sheeting
, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Roman März.

Sufferhead Original (2017) by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh is among the most low-key, but one of the most incisive, manifestations at documenta 14, the quinquennial survey of contemporary art that opened its second chapter in Kassel on 10 June 2017, following its launch in Athens earlier this Spring. The work consists of 50,000 bottles of craft stout named after Original Sufferhead, the 1981 recording by Nigerian Afro-beat celebrity and activist Fela Kuti. Kuti’s lyrics tells of how locals have to pay inflated prices for imported basic foodstuffs when foreigners come to Africa and exploit agricultural resources, ousting local crops with alien species that are in demand as exports.

The dilemma of foreign ventures threatening local ecologies resonates at documenta, habitually based in Germany since 1955. Commentators have remarked that the decision to extend its reach to the economically beleaguered city of Athens, and a forthcoming venture in Angolan capital Luanda, have echoes of the colonial past. HG Masters, writing for Art Asia Pacific, describes it as “The fraught, quasi-colonial relationship between north and south, across the globe and within Europe.” And Iliana Fokianaki on Art Agenda describes the arrival in Athens as “crisis tourism”.

Emeka Ogboh, 'Sufferhead Original (Kassel Edition)', 2017, photograph, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke and Oliver Blohm.

Emeka Ogboh, ‘Sufferhead Original (Kassel Edition)’, 2017, photograph, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke and Oliver Blohm.

Ogboh’s aestheticised dark beer bottles are for sale in the documenta shop at a healthy price. The black beer insinuates its elite presence in the heartland of the blond (beer). It upturns the convention of Westerners being the privileged visitors who are gifted to introduce improvements; advantages that are wont to turn out to be one-sided.

In The New York Times, Jason Farago remarks that every documenta “has served as a manifesto about art’s current relevance and direction”. This makes the dichotomy of Athens and Kassel all the more intricate. Writing for Frieze Pablo Larios asks: “how should the two parts of this exhibition relate: as iterations, segments, mirror images, chapters, or broken halves?”

On Art Agenda Anders Kreuger comments:

Any attempt to rapidly and exhaustively dissect Documenta 14 is a fool’s errand. Nowadays, any institution of this magnitude is treated as too big to fail and is therefore all the more vulnerable to failure.

Zainul Abedin, 'Untitled', 1943, from the series "Famine Sketches", Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Image courtesy and photo Andrew Stooke.

Zainul Abedin, ‘Untitled’, 1943, from the series “Famine Sketches”, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Image courtesy and photo Andrew Stooke.

Cultural sprawl

There is no doubt that the show is rambling, although its spillage into public spaces in the city is less pronounced than in the past. It takes place at 35 separate sites across Kassel, but the greatest concentration of works is in just three of these, documenta Halle, the Neue Galerie and (the confusingly named) Neue Neue Galerie. The whole exhibition’s argument is discerned in Neue Galerie. Here, mini surveys of work by often overlooked or marginalised historical artists jostle beside new statements that also interrogate the documents of the past.

A great example of an insightful revival is Bangladeshi artist Zainul Abedin’s (1914 – 1976) powerful ink sketches recording the Bengal famine of 1943. The foundation of the disaster could be traced to colonial era profiteering, similar to that critiqued by Fela Kuti. The drawings offer humane access to the experience, more direct than William Vandivert’s photographs that have become the primary visual record of the tragedy. Elsewhere these works can seem like an indulgence in the exotic.

Nilima Sheikh, 'Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind', 2016–17, various materials, ​Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

Nilima Sheikh, ‘Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind’, 2016–17, various materials, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

This dilemma is explored in Indian artist Nilima Sheikh’s Terrain: Carrying Across Leaving Behind (2016-17). The work consists of delicate paintings on fine canvas hung loose on a framework forming an intimate enclosure within the gallery. The paintings have a poetic narrative content. The artist says that “Inscribed across land and time the stories seek to lend each other new cumulative language and context.” These folk tales are not the strange remnants of another cultural context but are still relevant, animating and making sense in the contemporary world.

Amar Kanwar, 'Such a Morning', 2017, digital video, installation view, Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street (“Nikos Kessanlis” Exhibition Hall), documenta 14. Photo: Freddie F.

Amar Kanwar, ‘Such a Morning’, 2017, digital video, installation view, Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street (“Nikos Kessanlis” Exhibition Hall), documenta 14. Photo: Freddie F.

Among many separate collections of smaller works, New Dehli-based Amar Kanwar’s 84-minute video entitled Such a Morning (2017) is a haven of reflection, given a generous projection space. The film follows a celebrated academic who leaves his wife to withdraw from the world, living in a rusty disused railway carriage. Supposedly, he blacks out the interior to prepare for losing his eyesight. The experience is cathartic and he begins to enjoy nature and sunlight again. The implication is that his blindness was a somatic response to the darkness of dread, fascism and the supremacy of expedience over the potential for growth. Kanwar says it is, ‘seeking the truth through phantom visions from within the depths of darkness.’

Pélagie Gbaguidi, 'The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone', 2017, various materials, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Andrew Stooke.

Pélagie Gbaguidi, ‘The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone’, 2017, various materials, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Andrew Stooke.

Also in Neue Galerie, Senegalese artist Pélagie Gbaguidi’s extensive installation The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone (2017) surveys attitudes to education, suturing the creepy repressive disciplines of the 19th century to learning freedom, represented by long flowing banners smeared with childish expressive marks. These brush gently against wooden desks. It is an optimistic work that considers the pedagogies of the past as stages on a passage towards universal enlightenment.

Arin Rungjang, '246247596248914102516... And then there were none (Democracy Monument)', 2017, wood and brass sculpture, Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

Arin Rungjang, ‘246247596248914102516… And then there were none (Democracy Monument)’, 2017, wood and brass sculpture, Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

Then and now

Set in a dimly lit disused post office, Neue Neue Galerie shows most of the newly commissioned works for this edition of documenta. The only Thai artist in the show, Arin Rungjang is also one of the most perceptive. Beside a gilded life-size replica of Soldiers Fighting for Democracy (Corrado Feroci, 1939), one of the relief sculptures at the base the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Rungjang multipart work considers an astonishing aspect of relations between Thailand and Germany though the video 246247596248914102516… And then there were none (2017).

Arin Rungjang, 'And then there were none (Tomorrow we will become Thailand.)', 2016, digital video and various materials, Benaki Museum—Pireos Street Annexe, Athens, documenta 14. Photo: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis.

Arin Rungjang, ‘And then there were none (Tomorrow we will become Thailand.)’, 2016, digital video and various materials, Benaki Museum—Pireos Street Annexe, Athens, documenta 14. Photo: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis.

The film tells of a Thai diplomat known as Prasat Chutin, the last visitor to sign the guest book in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. Chutin was interned by Russia after the fall of Nazi Germany before finally being able to return home to Thailand. The story is interspersed with an account of Rungjang’s own experiences in Berlin. These accounts are heard in a voice over while the film’s protagonists, two dancers, move around a hotel room overlooking Hitler’s bunker. The work makes no attempt unpick the tangles of history.

One of the most popular works in this venue was the forensic reconstruction of a Kassel internet café where 21-year-old Turk Halit Yozgat was shot in 2006. The work by The Society of Friends of Halit uses virtual reconstructions to interrogate the testament of a German secret service agent. The agent claimed to have departed the café moments before the incident. The evidence is meticulously presented, demonstrating that old facts are messy and partial.

El Hadji Sy, 'Disso—Concertation', 2016, installation of paintings with sound, installation view, ​documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Nils Klinger.

El Hadji Sy, ‘Disso—Concertation’, 2016, installation of paintings with sound, installation view, documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Nils Klinger.

Fabric

Curator Hendrik Folkerts says in an interview with Flash Art: “In the exhibition at large we’re looking at how weaving, which is established on patterns, relates to a score […].” The metaphor of weaving together dichotomies, such as Athens and Kassel, like a warp and weft, is manifest in several textile works in documenta Halle. These include a series of seven expressive paintings on rough canvas by Senagalese artist El Hadji Sy. Mounted on rollers they expose the raw weave off their supports, seen on their reverse.

Aboubakar Fofana, 'Fundi (Uprising'), 2017, various materials, installation view, ​documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Roman März.

Aboubakar Fofana, ‘Fundi (Uprising’), 2017, various materials, installation view, documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Roman März.

Malian artist Aboubakar Fofana’s fine indigo dyed cotton rectangles fly high above a group of tended plants that produce the dye, privileging the connection of the cotton products both with nature and with husbandry. Besides these, stretching almost the entire length of the gallery, is a yearning and exquisite appliqué tapestry, Historja (2003–07) by Britta Marakatt-Labba, which tells of the change from foraging to agrarian, to a belief driven society.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, 'Historja', 2003–07, embroidery, print, appliqué, and wool on linen, documenta Halle, Kassel, © Britta Marakatt-Labba/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, documenta 14. Photo: Roman März.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, ‘Historja’, 2003–07, embroidery, print, appliqué, and wool on linen, documenta Halle, Kassel, © Britta Marakatt-Labba/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, documenta 14. Photo: Roman März.

In an independent location Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s monumental installation Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030 (2016-17) uses jute coal sacks to envelop the two structures know as Torwache. The buildings flank one of the main roads into town acting as a portal. The sacks are by no means a beautifying fabric, having been polluted with the stain of their prior multiple uses for the transport of commodities. On the outside, lashed by the rain and burned by the sun, they suggest human cost.

Ibrahim Mahama, 'Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030', 2016–2017, various materials, Torwache, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Ibrahim Mahama.

Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030’, 2016–2017, various materials, Torwache, Kassel, documenta 14. Photo: Ibrahim Mahama.

documenta’s organisers and many stakeholders have endeavoured to create a reasoned and inclusive contemporary approach but this can unravel when exposed to the restive conditions of the present. Even the fabric of institutional self-confidence will fray at the edges, particularly when exposed to the abrasions of its ‘Other’.

Andrew Stooke

1729

Related Topics: African, Asian, video, installation, sculpture, textilesGermany

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